By CAROLINE KAUFMAN
June 2, 2015—The relationship between women and the labor force is filled with complexities and contradictions that are far too easily glossed over. For example, paid employment outside the home promotes women’s economic empowerment, but this same work can also decrease their standing among friends and peers. How then, can women be expected to respond when a job opportunity presents itself?
Professor Naila Kabeer of the London School of Economics and Political Science recently shed light on these complexities. Speaking at the World Bank on “Culture, Economics, and Women’s Engagement with the Labor Market,” she urged her audience to consider the many variables that affect a woman’s decision whether to engage in paid, formal employment. Kabeer focused her talk on Bangladesh, her native country, where progress toward gender equality has long been uneven.
A woman’s decision to work in formal employment is influenced by cultural norms, economic calculus (how much money a family has or needs), geographic location, education level, number of children, and marital status, to name only a few factors, Kabeer said. Here, though, is the biggest takeaway: As it turns out, many Bangladeshi women do not want to work outside the home. Rather, according to surveys Kabeer conducted, they would prefer to work within the home, even if this means forgoing the possibility of earning money independently.
This phenomenon might help explain the disparate progress toward gender equality in Bangladesh, and certainly elsewhere. Bangladeshi women have advanced significantly on the social front in recent years, illustrated by falling birth rates and maternal mortality rates. However, women’s economic progress has been far slower. Not only has female participation in the formal labor force remained low compared with male participation—women make up only 40 percent of the total Bangladeshi labor force—but the country has also witnessed what Kabeer says is an “inexplicable rise” in the percentage of women working in unpaid family labor.
For many women, it appears that the opportunity for greater economic independence is simply not worth the hardship of working outside the home. Women who work outside the home frequently must endure sexual harassment and physical violence, poor and even dangerous working conditions that threaten health and safety, and extended time away from family. Adding insult, working outside the home often isolates a woman from her friends, family and neighbors. That isolation decreases her economic and social empowerment.
Economic firms, take note: The continuously low female labor force participation rates in developing countries are not due solely to a lack of jobs available to women. Rather, they are also due largely to a stated preference of women to work in informal jobs in or near home: tutoring, tailoring, farming, for example. In our attempts to spark gender-inclusive growth worldwide, it is critical that we, as economic development professionals, heed the complexities.
Caroline Kaufman joined Nathan Associates in February 2015 as a program assistant. She has contributed to studies of the livelihoods of female refugees, and studies of development issues and gender. Caroline has a B.A. in international relations and development economics from Tufts University.